We use cookies for site personalization and analytics. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

Power Of Protest

Human Rights

new internationalist
issue 318 - November 1999

Indonesia: Power of protest
On the streets of Jakarta, people are tearing down the guarded gate to freedom.
Anouk Ride joins them at the beginning of her journey through Indonesia.

‘What do they think about Indonesia in your country?’ asks an Indonesian student, as we wait for a taxi in Jakarta. He adds with a cheeky grin: ‘Do they think we are still rioting?’

It is true that many Westerners doubted my sanity in visiting Indonesia at this ‘unsafe’ time. But I replied: ‘Well, people in Australia know the election happened and there was no violence then. And this makes them happy,’ I reply.

This answer pleases him. His posture straightens and he says proudly: ‘Yes, there was no violence. It was democratic. It’s good.’

I had been told that Jakarta was smoggy, crowded and ugly. But, amidst the locals’ frenzy and excitement over their newly won ability to speak, vote and hope to recreate freedom, I could pay little attention to the scenery. For anyone who has become disillusioned, bored or blasé about democracy, Jakarta is the place to rediscover what politics is meant to be all about.

This year Indonesia had only the second free national election in its entire history. The collection of 17,000 islands had a variety of local rulers till the Dutch colonized the country in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. When they finally left and Indonesia won its independence after World War Two, a new form of colonialism from within took their place – the island of Java dominates a centralized system of political and military rule.

This began under the populist independence leader Sukarno who was elected President in the last free elections in 1955. But it reached the height of its oppression under General Suharto, who violently took power ten years later (see box). For the next 32 years, a form of élite and military rule controlled land, natural resources, the legal system, bureaucracy, business and freedom of speech. It became stronger and more vigorous with age, mimicking eternity. A joke circulated in Jakarta that an Egyptian mummy rose to life and saw in his tomb an American, an Australian and an Indonesian. The mummy, in a rather arrogant tone, said he’d never heard of the US or Australia and said their two nationals must be frauds. But the mummy jovially asked the Indonesian: ‘Tell me, is Suharto still the Javanese King of Indonesia?’

The first to challenge Suharto, in the mid-1990s, were the students who pounded the city streets with their idealistic visions of democracy, arguing for an end to the military’s unquestioned power and for freedom of speech. The reporters chased them with their tape recorders, collecting their ever-more-ready soundbites. Some academics and intellectuals stopped pussyfooting about and joined in. Then the economic crisis hit in 1997: the price of rice quadrupled and employees were sacked or saw their wages fall by 77 per cent. Faced with no job to go to and a seemingly ineffectual government response to economic disaster, almost everyone joined the protest – from stockbrokers to sweatshop slaves.

The shooting by snipers of four students at Trisakti University on 12 May 1998 triggered rampages and the city erupted into rioting. In the days that followed, seemingly as a part of the military’s crackdown and subsequent attempts to present themselves as restorers of law and order, organized gangs roamed the streets. Around 1,900 people died, hundreds of rapes were committed and $265 million worth of damage was done to property.

Fortunately, this terror did not dent the courage of the demonstrators. In one dramatic rally they actually occupied the parliament building and scaled its roof, as shown on the cover of this magazine. At the end of May, Suharto was forced to step down and a provisional President, Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, took his place. Habibie agreed to hold free elections, and around 100 million people voted in June this year – making Indonesia the world’s third biggest democracy. (Political commentator Olle Thornquist notes it is actually the second biggest since so few Americans actually vote.)

Even though the election rallies are over by the time I arrive in Jakarta, the protests continue while the votes are being counted. I watch a parade of red-clad PRD (Peoples’ Democratic Party) supporters from all over Indonesia outside the national electoral commission. They scream allegations of dirty tricks by Suharto’s party Golkar and demand its disqualification from the electoral race. Because it has the most radical political platform and was one of the first groups to speak out against Suharto and the military, the PRD is still seen as a threat – its offices are attacked and its leaders regularly harassed by those in power.

The protest in front of the electoral commission leads to a clash between the police and the PRD in which 81 are injured. I meet one of the wounded the next day, a student with a bandage wrapped round his head and a big grin on his face. He has just participated in another rally to protest about what had happened the day before and to reiterate the protesters’ demands: ‘The military are getting 38 unelected seats in parliament, for free. Now Golkar are cheating. They should be disqualified.’ With his friends he shouts at the camera: ‘Reformasi! (Reformation!)’ ‘Reformasi total!’ adds another from behind. This is what makes the PRD different from other parties; they demand the total rebuilding of the political system.

The other political action on the street is the collection of signatures or bloody thumbprints to show support for Megawati Sukarnoputri – leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, PDI-P – as the next President of Indonesia. Great long white banners line the freeways as hordes of pedestrians declare their support and people leap out of their cars to sign amidst the horn-honks of cars waiting to pass. Megadollars, the fake 50,000 rupiah note with Megawati’s face rather than Suharto’s, are passed to drivers through their car windows. Megawati’s supporters do not rest even though the election is finished. They know they have to keep up the pressure so that members of parliament will vote for her as President.

Streets stained red - Megawati's supporters out in force.

As you read this article, the new Indonesian parliament’s first session will be wrangling over this issue. In June the PDI-P and its leader Megawati won the most votes. Daughter of President Sukarno, who died under house arrest, and herself thrown out of the parliament by Suharto, Megawati symbolizes the struggle against the repressive regime. A silent battler but a charismatic public figure, this woman holds the hopes of ordinary citizens who want an end to the corruption and repression that has shaped their lives till now.

Many intellectuals, politicians and journalists from Indonesia and overseas revile her. To these commentators Megawati is false or stupid, power-hungry or ineffectual, trading on the fame of Sukarno or seeking revenge from Suharto, uneducated or over-reliant on friends for advice, all talk but no action for change. All these speculations are beside the point. Megawati is what the people voted for. And even if the worst projections are true, has a democracy ever elected an intellectually challenged President? Enter stage right, Ronald Reagan. Has a democracy elected leaders that talk about change but really bolster the status quo? Hello, Tony Blair. Taken the leadership while settling a personal score? Greetings, Paul Keating.

Megawati’s supporters are clear about what they want – an end to ‘Ka-Ka-N’ (Corruption, Collusion and Nepotism), democratic reform and peace in the streets. And as in all other democratic systems, if their expectations are not met Megawati’s power will dwindle and they will try someone else. Even if Megawati is disastrous as a national leader, this will be part of a democratic process; Indonesians will learn through political experience. Time will tell.

Suharto’s slaughter
Suharto became national leader when at least half a million (and possibly over a million) people were killed in a systematic countrywide slaughter of anyone suspected of communist sympathies. The bloodletting began following the murder of six generals on 1 October 1965 during an alleged communist coup attempt. Some historians allege that the generals were actually murdered not by left-wingers but as a result of inter-military rivalries. But the generals’ death provided Suharto with the perfect opportunity not only to consolidate power but also to eliminate a generation of potentially troublesome left-wing activists.

Journalist Rati Hojerno says Indonesians only talk about what happened in 1965 amongst family. ‘I think it has to do with the shame that things like this happen,’ she says. ‘We Indonesians are supposed to be the keepers of a long and deep civilization.’ There are calls for a new curricular focus on this episode of Indonesian history – till now generations of school kids have visited museums displaying bloodthirsty communists murdering their captives and had to write reports on anti-communist films. People with links to the Communist Party are shunned from the civil service and public positions. Now, the nationwide Islamic organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, is reportedly considering whether to issue a public apology for its role in the killing – in Java, Islamic clerics and youth groups whipped up anti-communist fervour and violence.

But the shame does not just rest with Indonesians. According to former CIA Director William Colby, among others, in 1965 a list of 5,000 left-wing activists was handed by the US to the Indonesian army. The Americans later checked off the names of those who had been killed or captured, as reported by Kathy Kadane in US newspapers in 1990. Kadane quotes Robert J Martens, a former member of the US Embassy’s political section and consultant to the State Department, who says: ‘They probably killed a lot of people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that’s not all bad. There’s a time when you have to strike hard at a decisive moment.’

A new research institute spearheaded by novelist and ex-political prisoner Pramoedya Ananta Toer plans to dig up mass graves and interview victims’ families in an attempt to get to the truth of what happened. At the end of Pramoedya’s recently released memoirs (The Mute’s Soliloquy) is a list of the 315 political prisoners arrested between 1965 and 1970 who are known to have died on Buru Island, one of the islands where Pramoedya was held for a total of 12 years. Pramoedya writes: ‘Following the events of 1965, I lost everything or, to be more accurate, all the illusions I had ever owned. I was a newborn child, outfitted with the only instrument a newly born babe finds necessary for life: a voice. Thus like a child my only means of communication was my voice: my screams, cries, whimpers and yelps.’

But now that pro-democracy supporters have burst open the doors to parliament, they must face another obstacle to reform – a bolted gate that stretches from the ground to the tips of the trees, topped with coils of barbed wire. It is the Indonesian military.

When Suharto fell, the dual political and security role of the military, known as dwifungsi, was at last openly challenged. The military tried to quell dissent with small reforms – military officers can no longer be appointed to civilian government positions, the police were separated from the armed forces and the military did not interfere in the free elections. Indoctrinated to believe they were loved by the people who cherished their protection, defiance has shocked the military without diminishing its lethal power.

In Jakarta, the military’s force has been most dramatically and recently felt by the ethnic Chinese. Although documentation of police and military involvement in victimizing ethnic Chinese in the May riots last year was widely circulated, no action has been taken against the commanders or their hired preman (troublemakers or ‘rascals’ who work amongst the people). Around 130 Chinese women suffered multiple rape in just two days, 13-14 May 1998, giving the city a taste of the organized sexual violence found most commonly in Aceh and East Timor.

The Chinese rape victims are unable or unwilling to speak out. And people working for the Volunteers for Humanity – an organization which sprung up to help the rape victims, their traumatized families and witnesses and other victims of military-sponsored violence during the riots are to this day working underground rather than being publicly identifiable and open to retaliation.

Esther Indahyani Jusuf, a member of the Chinese community who works as an anti-racism activist says: ‘The May riots appeared to be very organized between the police and other people, very possibly the military and President because the fact that they let it happen implicates them. I’m pretty sure there was an order from the top just to let this violence happen, creating the conditions for more racist attacks. When we confronted the military with evidence that they were responsible, they rejected our facts. Now they are scaring the non-governmental organizations. And not one military person has been arrested.’

I thought of Esther and the other ethnic Chinese who live in fear of a military force that is not identifiable by uniforms when I saw recent media reports of the militia rampages in East Timor. A television image of Timorese ripping their bodies to shreds on the barbed-wire-topped fence of the UN’s Dili headquarters, in an attempt to escape the violence, made my heart pound with frustration and fury. Not just for the Timorese, but for all those Indonesians still in the military’s clutches – the rape victims; the Christians and Muslims on the island of Ambon, provoked into attacking one another; the indigenous people dying for the land taken from them; and the millions of others scarred by Suharto’s legacy whose cause is not championed by the rest of the world. I travelled to the outermost regions of Indonesia – from the northernmost war-ridden province of Aceh to the easternmost territory of West Papua (Irian Jaya) to see their hidden scars and hear their untold stories.

Although they all revile Javanese political power, I found their desires were the same as the students and activists of Jakarta, Java’s capital. The demands of all but Indonesia’s élite are based on four central needs: to get the military out of politics and out of their lives; to reform the political system and free it from corruption; to use natural resources for the good of locals, not landlords; and to create a system for people, not powermongers.

At the heart of the capital I climbed a tower, Monas, where I saw the streets of Jakarta spread out before me in all its concrete vastness. The tower was built by the Government to provide a spectacular view for visitors from abroad and from the outer islands. Here I realized how Indonesia’s leaders have seen their nation – huge, full of possibilities, a panorama in which the people are tiny; antlike in significance to the overall vision. Finally, Indonesians are changing the scenery – not from above, but from the streets where their feet will be noisy, disruptive and restless until exploitation is finally stamped out.

All translations in this magazine are by Jacqueline Powell.

Manos tower - the view from the top.
photo by ANOUK RIDE

previous page choose a different magazine go to the contents page go to the NI home page next page

New Internationalist issue 318 magazine cover This article is from the November 1999 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Subscribe today »


Help us produce more like this

Editor Portrait Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.

Support us »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop